Happy Hour in Korea

There’s a place and a time between work and home that’s neither professional nor domestic, but as familiar as both of them. English speakers call it happy hour; the French call it cinq à sept; Italians, aperitivo. It’s a where and a when to speak openly and easily – and in which we’re momentarily free.

Eat pig! Drink soju!

In Korea, drinking with colleagues often means the entire office has piled into a brightly lit, cafeteria-style soju bang – literally, “soju room” – and everyone is sitting on the floor getting wasted.

Upending the strict Confucian hierarchy that rules the office, this is the salaryman’s moment of existential release: blinking hesitantly at first under the harsh fluorescent lights, he’ll soon engage in a torrent of free speaking and taboo-breaking camaraderie with a coworker who has never before acknowledged his existence. Happy hour is a time and place where he makes his way between the office and his apartment, but it’s more than that: it’s a space to play at emotional intimacy and a carnival-like opportunity to disrupt the social order. All this, and his boss still nonchalantly pays for the whole escapade.

Don’t forget though, this is a matter of brute quantity – and this is reflected in the fact that two brands of Korean soju sit at first and third on the 2011 global list of best-selling liquors. In Korea, one commits to finishing the bottle of soju as soon as it’s opened. Luckily the soju bang is often close to a public transportation station. But if you’re too wasted to make it home, just lay your head down on a park bench, and while away the rest of your night unmolested.

Don’t worry. Nobody in the office will mention it tomorrow.

the author

Rachel Kwan

Rachel Kwan is research assistant, insight + foresight at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.